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Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South  (Cambridge University Press, 2008)


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by Wilma A. Dunaway

This is a copyrighted document from the electronic archive for Wilma A. Dunaway. Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Michel-Rolph Trouillot explains that writers record only those facts that "matter" to them and that support their "conscious ideologies." Thus, "some occurrences are noted from the start; others are not" so that any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences." The production of history is accomplished through "the simultaneous production of mentions and silences" and through selective silencing to "package history for public consumption." Groups which are least powerful are either "absent in history" or distorted in official history in ways that benefit dominant elites.

Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded. . . . Thus, whatever becomes fact does so with its own inborn absences, specific to its production. In other words, the very mechanisms that make any historical recording possible also ensure that historical facts are not created equal. They reflect differential control of the means of historical production at the very first engraving that transforms an event into a fact.

As a result, "some peoples and things are absent in history" because "this absence is constitutive of the process of historical production." Historical "facts," therefore, are "neither neutral or natural," for they:

are created. As such, they are not mere presences or absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, [Trouillot] mean[s] an active and transitive process: one "silences" a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis. . . . Inequalities experienced by the actors lead to uneven historical power in the inscription of traces. Sources built upon these traces in turn privilege some events over others. . . . Sources are thus instances of inclusion, the other face of which is, of course, what is excluded.

It is also important to note that history may be produced more frequently through fiction, patriotic rituals, and popular culture than by academics. (1)

In the sense that Trouillot describes history production, it is not accurate to claim that Appalachian women are totally "absent" from written history. Instead, they appear in warped caricatures that were grounded in nineteenth-century Social Darwinist assumptions about biological inferiority. On the one hand, the Appalachian woman before 1950 was frequently the central figure in travel accounts and fiction production. Antebellum female travelers considered Appalachian women to be "little better than beautiful savages" who did not "appear to possess much mind." In fictional accounts, authors have romanticized the less-civilized "close, almost mythic relationship" of Appalachian females " with the natural world," as evidence by their "love of place." As a reflection of separate spheres ideologies, the "mountain matriarch" is described "as preserver, nourisher, and sustainer of both family and community life" who is melancholy and lonely due to "emotional and spiritual distance" from her husband. Because she is observed by outsiders doing "man" manual labors, she is depicted as a "menial victim of toil" to be pitied. On the other hand, numerous historical and social science narratives were constructed between 1900 and 1980 by writers who engaged in the "the dialectics of mentions and silences" to formulate a theory about the nature of women's roles in patriarchal Appalachian families. Compelled by commitment to a "conscious ideology," they constructed a homogeneous, reductionist image of the "typical mountain woman" by recording only those "facts" (or those untested assumptions) which were "thinkable" or "possible" within the separate spheres model of families. In order to shape that history for public consumption by possible donors between the early 1900s and the 1920s, ministers and missionaries privileged the notion that the Appalachian mother was so broken by her household and by her backward community that she needed to be saved by church projects funded by contributions from external philanthropists. The caricature of the mountain woman as victimized, self-sacrificing wife and mother was more palatable for external public consumption by middle-class readers than was a more complex analysis of her active income-earning or activism outside the home, so northern periodicals further distorted and popularized this shadow view of Appalachian women. According to Horace Kephart, the Appalachian woman "has her kingdom within the house." While the young boy "grows into the ways of mountain manhood," assumed John Campbell, "his sisters are learning to tread the painful path of mountain womanhood." Setting the precedent for a stereotype that would be embraced by 1960s policy-makers, Campbell blamed Appalachian woman's lack of morals for the "widespread illegitimacy" he claimed existed in the southern highlands. According to Jacquelyn Dowd Hall:

The mountain women who people nineteenth-century travel accounts, novels, and social surveys tend to be drudges who married young and aged early, burdened by frequent pregnancies and good-for-nothing men. Alongside that predominant image is another: the promiscuous mountain girl, responsible for the supposed high rate of illegitimacy in the region. (2)

From the 1930s through the 1960s, journalists, social scientists, and social workers established the "separate spheres" ideology as conventional wisdom through the publication of numerous ethnographies about Appalachian communities, and it is striking that so many of these sexist analyses were written by women. Most of these exaggerated works emphasize exotic alien characteristics to stimulate popular consumption,. Almost all the writers grounded family life and work in strictly gender-segregated arenas, restricted passive women to their households, and erased or selectively silenced all details about their lives that would have made them more than uni-dimensional sideshows. These ethnographies also selectively erased all ethnic and class differences among women, in order to generate images of white women who lacked the kinds of white middle-class character traits needed to avoid poverty. As the War on Poverty drew national attention to Appalachian poverty in the 1960s, a new generation of ethnographies emphasized the "physical separateness between the sexes" and l mythologized that all the region's women were confined to a "feminine world" in which they "subordinated their desires to those of men." In the 1960s, doctors, sociologists, and social workers added the ring of scientism and professionalism to separate spheres notions about Appalachian women, at the same time that they legitimated the stereotypes of incestuous marriages and overly-fertile wives who produced large families that caused the region's impoverishment. With a yellow journalistic pen that fired off repeated hyperboles, nurse Rena Gazaway captures the typical image of women that was offered by the ethnographies and magazine articles that appeared before 1980 when she claims that pregnancy is "the only role" considered appropriate for females, that "promiscuity is commonplace," and that the residents "are unconcerned about soaring birth rates." She also describes wives as immature adults who:

live half-lives and are not equipped to assume their personal and social obligations. The defects in their communal organization have made them insecure, incomplete, and inconsequential; the high price of their circumscribed intercourse with the outside world manifests itself in distorted physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.

To titillate her readers, she inserts absurd details about the licentiousness of Appalachian females, observing that their "immorality causes the outer world to catch its pious breath. If a young girl consents to sexual intercourse, her legal age does not hinder its consummation. Sexual appetites develop as prematurely as the sixth year of life in some of the precocious females." Such frequent promiscuity was caused, she added, by "crowded living quarters" which forced young females to share sleeping space with male adults, so that "intercourse is very much a part of their everyday life." Moreover, she added, "they frequently copulate with married men." Since 1980, most regional writers have either not mentioned females at all, or they briefly pledge allegiance to earlier separate spheres assumptions that homogenize all Appalachian women's family lives and work. Even though they offer no empirical evidence to support the stereotype that "women's roles were more clearly confined to the home," this worn-out myth has routinely been reiterated by regional scholars over the last two decades. (3) For more than thirty years, Appalachian writers have been calling attention to regional scholarly failure to produce revisionist analyses that attack a century of accumulated stereotypes. The earliest critique that I can find which addresses the historical distortion of Appalachian women is the 1974 "Special Women's Issue" of Mountain Life and Work, and regional female scholars are still resounding this concern in the contemporary era. The task of analyzing the work and family life of antebellum females might be simpler if Appalachian women were totally absent from history, for then we could begin with a blank slate. However, the journey toward a meaningful analysis of Appalachian women is made more difficult by the need to overcome the burden of a century of outdated social Darwinist assumptions about their character flaws and about their debilitating isolation in the separate sphere of their homes.


1. Trouillot, Silencing the Past, pp.16, 29, 48-49, 96, 117.

2. For surveys of Appalachian women in fiction before 1950, see Collins, "Nineteenth Century Fiction," pp. 215-217, Harris, "Southern Mountaineer," and McLeod, "Southern Highlands." Royall, Sketches, p. 91. Miller, Wingless Flights, pp. 2, 3, 6, 7, 11, 24. For the mountain matriarch image in a novel, see Furman, Quare Woman; for a critical view of this novel, see Leftwich, "Lucy Furman," pp. 135-42. Trouillot, Silencing the Past, pp 53, 99. For early religious biases about Appalachian women and families, see Haney, Mountain People, Miles, Spirit of the Mountains, and Raine, Land of Saddlebags. For popular journalistic accounts, see Grattan, "Trouble in the Hills," pp. 290-94, Ham, "Close-up," pp. 659-65, and Hickey, "Forgotten Children," pp. 23-24. Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders, p. 257. Campbell, Southern Highlanders, pp. 124-26, 132. Hall, "Disorderly Women," p. 20.

3. For social science ethnographies written for popular consumption, see Nixon, Possum Trot, Sheppard, Cabins in the Laurel, Thomas, Big Sandy, Thomas, Blue Ridge Country, Hitch, "Life," pp. 309-22, Miller, Girl in the Rural Family, Ch. 4, Thomas, Traipsin Woman. For a bibliography of pre-1980 publications, see Farr, Appalachian Women. For applied medical and social science accounts, see Hyland, "Fruitful Mountaineers," pp. 60-67, Gray, "Mountain Dilemmas," pp. 1-7, Jones, My Colorful Days, Wheeler, "Study," pp. 33-36, Withington, "Mountain Doctor," pp. 257-67, Sherman and Henry, Hollow Folk, Brown, "Conjugal Family," pp. 297-306, and Roberts, Up Cutshin, Hines, "Portrait of a Hillbilly," pp. 49-57. For notions of cousin and incestuous marriages and segregated work roles, see Matthews, Neighbor and Kin, pp. 10-13, 61-73. 1960s ethnographies include Gazaway, The Longest Mile, pp. 81, 106, Stephenson, Shiloh, p. 109, and Pearsall, Little Smoky Ridge, p. 102. For regional writers who accepted assumptions about separate spheres in their 1980s and 1990s work, see Eller, Miners, Millhands, p. 31, Waller, Feud., p. 58, Blackmun, Western North Carolina, vol. 1, p. 169. In 1978, Lewis, Kobak, and Johnson, "Family," p. 115, offered a short, low-key contradiction of separate spheres notions, but the only 1970s feminist challenge to this ideology was Kahn, Hillbilly Women. Other regional writers either did not mention women at all, or they briefly isolated women in their homes. In his recent regional history, Drake, History, pp. 187-88, applies without evidence or criticism the separate spheres notion. Similarly, Williams, History, pp. 120-23, offers no description of women's work beyond home and farmyard.